It's time to pay the piper but I think I'm bankrupt
January 3, 2008 5:11 PM   Subscribe

How do I go about declaring email bankruptcy?

Several (as in possibly four) months ago I basically walked away from my primary personal email account, although I didn't intend to at the start. I was under a lot of stress so I took a few days off (which of course made more of it pile up) and then got an attack of what we'll politely call the vapors, followed by an unrelated life-threatening illness it has taken some time to recover from.

There is SO MUCH mail in there. Thousands and thousands of emails. I can't see how I'll ever deal with it. Every time I open it I more or less want to vomit. I am pretty sure I need to declare email bankruptcy, but I don't know how.

1/ Should I basically be planning to reply to every unread email in my Inbox?
2/ If so, I use Gmail. How would I do that?
3/ What should I say in this email to everyone?

Unread emails would be from a wide range of people - friends, family, old co-workers, probably some old freelance clients, people from gaming sites and online games, plus totally random mail.

I think I want to avoid mentioning I was ill because I'm afraid that will just result in 300 "hope you are better" and "ZOMG what happened?" and "bitch, where have YOU BEEN?!" emails. But at the same time, I'd like to send a message that doesn't completely make me look like Flakey McFlakeyPants.

Really, I'm after the quietest explanation that is appropriate for a mixed bag audience and will result in the lowest volume of responses without burning every bridge behind me. Is that even possible?
posted by DarlingBri to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Why don't you ask a friend to go through your email inbox and sort it all into folders? Spam/junk/deleted, work, friends, family, miscellaneous, and time sensitive. That could cut it down a LOT, and make it seem sooo much less overwhelming.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:15 PM on January 3, 2008

I think you need to remember that most people who've sent you emails don't need an immediate response (close relatives/close friends excepting). Don't feel like you're letting anyone down by taking a long time to respond.

For casual acquaintances/ex-colleagues it's ok if you take a long time to respond, they're not crying themselves to sleep waiting for you to contact them.
posted by selton at 5:26 PM on January 3, 2008

I get this too, but with voice mail. Man, I hate voice mail. Is there really likely to be anything in there that's horribly important? Abandon the account and start a new one, email the people you really care about with something like, "Sorry, I've had some technical problems. If you need to get in touch, you can contact me at this address." I'd say a handful of people in your family and ask them to spread whatever news you want through the rest of the clan. It's just email. It's not brain surgery. No one's going to die if you don't get back to them.
posted by Hildegarde at 5:29 PM on January 3, 2008

A quiet explanation that might generate fewer responses: "I have been away from this email address for about four months. Please accept my apologies for the delay in contacting you and bear with me while I make my way through the backlog of emails. You may call me in the meantime if you already have my phone number." Tweak as needed. Also, as you make your way through the backlog, look into gmail's shortcuts to save time. I started using the "archive and next" one and it helps me quickly get through pileups not requiring replies.
posted by PY at 5:29 PM on January 3, 2008

ok, scratch that part about the phone number. And the earlier comments sound right. A short but formal note is probably only really needed for career-related emails.
posted by PY at 5:33 PM on January 3, 2008

Just trash the emails and start fresh. I wouldn't even both emailing people to let them know you're doing this. If you are missing out on something important, people will write you again.
posted by chunking express at 5:53 PM on January 3, 2008

I would sort it by sender and move the stuff I want to a separate folder.
I don't know about you but the signal-to-noise ratio in my email is not so good. At least half of it is beyond unsubstantial.
posted by loiseau at 5:55 PM on January 3, 2008

Get a new e-mail address. Set the old one to auto-reply something about your new address, and that you have not read any messages since m/d/y
posted by fermezporte at 6:22 PM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: Sometimes "e-mail bankruptcy" requires the nuclear option:

Select all messages. Delete. Don't look back.

If they want to contact you, they will do so again.
posted by megatherium at 7:00 PM on January 3, 2008

Since you're on Gmail, might I recommend the GTDInbox extension if you are using Firefox and decide to sort your backlog of messages?

Personally, I would send a brief note like the ones suggested above and skim through the messages, as time and tolerance permit. But, that's me--I would be "afraid" of missing something meaningful or informative that someone wanted to say. Since you're on Gmail with its loads of storage, you can filter and archive things to view later. Here's a link about email bankruptcy that may help: Before You Declare Email Bankruptcy…

Using Gmail (even without the Getting Things Done method), you can quickly sort/filter your inbox by sender, subject, etc. As you go through and see things you'd like to respond to, you can further categorize and prioritize them with the GTD tool.

When I started the whole Getting Things Done thing, I did have to go through my email like this. Fortunately, most of it was Listserv stuff that I could look up via online archives if I later thought it was important. Everything else took much less time and thought than I initially believed it would. Besides, most of the remainder was drivel that I delighted in deleting.

Whether you decide to shitcan the lot or skim the messages, the extension I mentioned above is really useful for sorting your new mailings and keeping them from overwhelming you again.

Good luck!
posted by bonobo at 7:08 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Some of this would be easier to accomplish in a standalone client, and that's where I'm coming from, but anyway I'll try and explain as best I can and you can apply it to GMail.

You need to set up folders (tags) where you can move things to so that they are out of your vision. I would start with: Newsletters, Family/Friends, Acquaintances, Unknown Individuals, and Obvious Trash. Then sort by sender, like loiseau says, and start moving the obvious messages... If you've been getting a message a week from Aunt Sue, that's almost a whole page worth that you can move right to Family/Friends (don't bother reading it, just move it for now). Even for thousands of messages, I promise that sorting won't really take that long, if you're very general about your categories. After you've done a couple hundred, go have a cup of cocoa. After you're finished, have another cup.

Now step two... This is actually a pretty easy step, too. Delete everything in Newsletters and Unknown Individuals--if you haven't missed it already, you're not going to. Delete everything in Obvious Trash. Start in the Family/Friends folder: If you really like the individual or find their letters interesting or in general want to read what they have to say, leave everything from them alone. If you don't like them, find them boring, whatever, mark all but the most recent as read (without actually reading) and move on. Acquaintances... same as F/F, except mark everything (including the most recent) as read unless you really want to read it.

Now the hardest part, actually reading stuff. Go back to Family/Friends, find the people who you only have one or a few messages still marked as unread, and skim them. As you finish skimming the messages from each person, write a reply which goes like this:

Dear Such-and-such.

I am so [sorry to hear about your medical condition|happy to hear about your new puppy|something about something mentioned in last letter]. I'm sorry that it has taken this long to reply to your messages, but over the past few months I've been super busy and unable to spend any time replying to e-mail, I'm sure you know how that goes. It is always good to hear from you, though, and I'll hopefully be able to keep up with mail in the future, so keep writing.

Thanks/hugs and kisses,

Then read the letters where you have a bunch from the same person that you actually want to read, and read those (this part is hopefully no hardship). You can send them either the above letter, or a real letter, whichever you've got energy for. Then read the stuff from Acquaintances that you haven't already marked as read, and either send the above or just don't send anything, depending on weather or not you want to keep up the correspondence.
posted by anaelith at 7:14 PM on January 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

first thing: tag (sorry, "label") all your unread messages as "bankrupt" or something. That way you can mark them all as read, archive them, whatever, and if 2 months from now you start feeling remorse about it, you can easily jump back into that subset of messages and wade through them if you feel so compelled.

Then you might just start trying a few searches on topics that interest you or that might be important or worth following up. May I suggest one of these?
label:bankrupt payment
label:bankrupt overdue
label:bankrupt died
label:bankrupt "hire you"
label:bankrupt "miss you"
label:bankrupt "new work"
posted by misterbrandt at 7:19 PM on January 3, 2008

Search for the emails that are obviously not worth reading (the ones from websites, particularly). When Gmail shows them to you, select all, then delete. That should get rid of a LOT of emails first up.
posted by divabat at 7:30 PM on January 3, 2008

Seconding megatherium - just delete them all.

Never mind emailing everyone. If anyone really wants something they'll follow up - by now everyone knows that email is liable to get lost or junked or ignored.
posted by anadem at 7:54 PM on January 3, 2008

I'm bad at interpersonal stuff, but I can tell you how to delete all unread mail in your inbox using gmail.

It's kind of convoluted. Sorry if these instructions are pedantic -- I'd rather bore with an answer that's too long than frustrate with one that's too short.

  1. Bring up just unread inbox contents. You can do this by searching for
      is:unread in:inbox
  2. Look under "Search results for is:unread in:inbox". The next line begins "Select:". Click the "all" link.
  3. A new line will appear right beneath where you were. This only happens if you have more results than gmail can display on one page, so for smaller result sets in the future you can skip this step. For now, click the "Select all conversations that match this search" link.
  4. Click the "Delete" button at the top of the search results. All done!
That said, I really like misterbrandt's suggestion. To do this, select the messages as above but don't click "Delete". Instead,
  1. Choose "New label..." from the "More actions" menu.
  2. In the popup, enter the name of the label you want. For example, "bankrupt". Click "OK".
  3. From the "More actions" menu, select either "Mark as read" (if you want to move things out of your inbox) or "Archive" (if you want them out of your inbox and you don't want them to come back, even if people reply to them later).
Whichever one of those you picked, you can bring up all the messages you just moved by searching for
You can combine this with other searches, too. Say your friend who sends mail from "" later asks if you got that email they sent about their new baby giraffe. Search for
  is:bankrupt "baby giraffe"
Hope that helps.
posted by amery at 7:57 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd send an email out as detailed by WCityMike to every unread email sender. Here's how I'd do it:
  1. Enable POP on the account and set Popped messages to be marked as read.
  2. Install Thunderbird.
  3. Install the addressContext extension.
  4. POP all the mail of of Gmail's server. This will take a good long time as GMail won't give it all to you at once instead they deliver it 50-500 messages at a time. To speed things along set the check for new mail duration to 60 seconds and let her run.
  5. Select all the messages in thunderbird's inbox.
  6. Right click them and select addressContext -> Add senders to list.
  7. Create the list
  8. Send the email to yourself and add the list as a BCC.

posted by Mitheral at 8:44 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've been keeping my email accounts under control for the 15 or so years I've had them. At work I would keep every single inbox message and outbox message in a giant cc:Mail and later Outlook archive file. Then one day my hard drive crashed right after I archived everything and had 0 messages in my inbox. I panicked at first but later realized it was best thing that ever happened. I had become a packrat of all these messages. I just emailed my teammates and a few others I would work with saying I'd lost my email, and if it was important could they resend it. Now I only keep what I need (and legally required stuff gets archived automagically).

What I'm getting at is you can just delete all the message and start over from scratch. The key will be to not let your mailbox get overwhelmed again. Just like financial bankruptcy, you want to not get into the dire straights again.

Unsubscribe from email newsletters and shit you never read. Delete messages after reading them. If they are keepsakes like love notes from your sweetie, file them right away. If they are registration codes or receipts file those too. If you need something you already deleted, usually the company that sent it to you can send it to you again.

I remember when gmail first came out, they said you never had to delete any messages because we're giving you all this space. Bullshit. If you don't need it, throw it out. If there are unread messages in your inbox after a while, you obviously don't need it so throw it out. Your friends/family already figure you are a flake if you haven't responded to an earlier email, they'll send you another one. Just be prompt about answering it and file or delete it.

Don't let the email box be an uncontrollable monster. Email and all this technology is supposed to make our lives easier. If it isn't, you're doing it wrong. One of the things I like about my iphone is I can check all my mail and delete messages I don't need right then so when I get home, the only stuff in my inbox is stuff I need and care about or have to follow up on.

Delete the messages. You'll find it quite liberating.
posted by birdherder at 8:56 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Merlin Mann sez put 'em all in a DMZ so you can get on with living. And then he very sensibly suggests archiving anything older than 21 days. Note his reasoning on the DMZ: It's not about "not having to deal with the email" (which actually happens all by itself as time passes!); it's about getting the pressure of all that email off of your mind so that those months away do not continue to impede you.
posted by eritain at 12:27 AM on January 4, 2008

First create a gmail folder for family and friends messages and use a filter to identify and move those to the folder.

Create other folders as necessary. When you have left a pile of one offs or things you don't recognize put this in a folder called WTF.

Then your inbox will be empty, if you want to you can go back, if you find out you got something that was a must read, then you can find it.

Anyone who says delete shouldn't be trusted with a keyboard.
posted by ewkpates at 6:57 AM on January 4, 2008

Response by poster: I'm really delighted to have options for both replying to all unread emails at once and just nuking the lot. Thanks to everyone for all of the suggestions, and for the "How To" instructions.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet, and I've basically migrated to a new domain and email address now, but whatever I do from here, it will be much better organised. Thanks so much!
posted by DarlingBri at 2:27 PM on January 4, 2008

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